FRI AM News: JFC continues state tourism investment; ‘WisBusiness: The Podcast’ features Liz Henry, J. Henry & Sons

— The Joint Committee on Finance voted to continue a $1.5 million addition to the Department of Tourism’s base budget over the next biennium.

Acting Secretary Anne Sayers said that money will go toward new markets to remain competitive with other Midwest states. Tourism is in double the markets it was in 2019, and Sayers says it’s good marketing sense to stay there. 

Sen. Joan Ballweg, who serves on the JFC, said the tourism industry will play a vital role in reinvigorating the state post-pandemic. 

“Although the Department of Tourism is a relatively small department, the tourism industry supports over 200,000 jobs in our local communities and has an over $2 billion impact on our state’s economy,” Ballweg, R-Markesan, said after the provision passed. 

The committee also took action to continue to fund the Office of Outdoor Recreation, which was created in 2019 to promote Wisconsin as a top outdoor recreation state. 

“Outdoor recreation has always been a top driver of visitation for Wisconsin, and it’s a growing sector of the economy even outside of tourism,” Sayers said. “There’s a lot of activity in this space nationally; Wisconsin is outpacing the national average.”

As participation levels in outdoor recreation skyrocketed in 2020, the office was there to organize that activity, Sayers explained. It’s also there for the manufacturers and retailers who are now raising questions around workforce, supply chain and how to keep the outdoor recreation economy growing.

— That’s just one thing to help propel tourism into what looks like a record-setting year.

The numbers of Americans looking to travel in the next six months are at a peak since the beginning of the pandemic at 89 percent, Sayers told a virtual event. Vacations of two nights or more are outpacing both 2020 and the record-setting year for tourism of 2019.

“These are really strong indicators that this is tourists, travelers, residents all looking to get revenge on the year of lost travel, looking to get back out there and find ways to make memories and reconnect with friends and family,” she said. “And that’s going to mean good news for Wisconsin’s leisure and tourism industry.”

Hotels are seeing a similar outlook in the leisure space, especially in the Northwoods and Door County areas, said Wisconsin Hotel & Lodging Association President and CEO Bill Elliott. But business travel is “still very slow” in the state. 

“From the data we’ve seen, once you mix the business travel and everything else, it will probably be closer to 2024 before we really see the full recovery back to the 2019 numbers,” he said. 

The Wisconsin Dells’ room and resort taxes fell 34 percent and 25 percent, respectively in 2020, said Tom Diehl, the president of the Association of Wisconsin Tourism Attractions. But the first three months of 2021 have put room and resort taxes 8.5 percent higher than that of 2019. 

“There is a lot of pent-up demand because people have been sitting home long enough, and we’re going to be a big benefactor of that,” he said. “My biggest worry is the labor shortage.”

While tourism establishments are preparing for an awaiting rush of visitors — many are struggling to find staff to accommodate guests. The workforce shortage is a multi-industry issue. This week lawmakers, chambers of commerce and business associations called for an end to the federal unemployment bonus to help get people back to work. 

Diehl said eliminating the enhancement would go a long way, but the tourism industry is also missing its J-1 workers.

Seasonal spots have come to rely on international students to help staff businesses. J-1 visas have been inhibited by travel restrictions and closed or delayed American embassies. Some businesses will have to reduce hours or services due to a staff shortage, Diehl said.

Hotels and lodging establishments also carry those burdens. It’s hard to encourage employees to come back to work when they’re making more than $16 per hour at home on unemployment, Elliott said. He noted he’s optimistic that the COVID-19 vaccine will encourage more people to come back to work. 

“I know there are some hotels that are closing off rooms at this point just because they don’t have enough people to turn them over and to clean them up and get them ready for the next guest,” he said. 

Watch the event: 

See a previous story on the J-1 visa program: 

— The new “WisBusiness: The Podcast” episode features Liz Henry, who owns and operates J. Henry & Sons with her family in Dane, north of Madison. 

Henry says the pandemic experience for the farm and distillery was unique. The distillery did close for the first two months and then reopened with reduced capacity. The Henrys were able to keep their staff employed. On the farm side of the business, workers got their temperature taken and wore masks and gloves. 

“We were grateful that people were comfortable enough to come out and be socially distanced and stay apart wearing masks,” she said, adding that the pandemic also was a cause to be creative. J. Henry & Sons dabbled in virtual tastings, classes, cocktail kits and porch pick-ups.

As the pandemic tails off, the distillery is working on providing an outdoor experience for visitors. J. Henry & Sons is also working on ramping up production after being on allocation for the past two years. Demand is always greater than supply for J. Henry bourbon. 

When COVID-19 hit, Henry said it was a better time for something bad to happen because the distillery wasn’t trying to reach new markets and didn’t have much product.

Listen to the podcast, sponsored by UW-Madison: 

— Wisconsin’s unemployment rate rose slightly to 3.9 percent in April, but remains well below the national rate of 6.1 percent.

It’s also far under the April 2020 unemployment rate peak of 14.8 percent, according to data the Department of Workforce Development released yesterday.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics preliminary employment estimates for April show the state’s total nonfarm jobs increased by 9,300 over the month. Private-sector jobs increased by 8,200 over the same period. 

From April 2020 to April 2021, Wisconsin total nonfarm jobs increased by 267,300 and private-sector jobs increased by 261,200. The BLS survey was conducted during the height of the COVID-19 shutdown in April 2020.

See the data: 

— Department of Revenue Secretary Peter Barca says broadband investments “almost certainly will pass.”

In an economic update this week hosted by St. Norbert College, Barca also said the Wisconsin Tomorrow Grant Program will start “very soon.”

Gov. Tony Evers’ budget proposal asked for $200 million over the biennium for broadband access. About $150 million would go toward broadband infrastructure in underserved areas, and $40 million would go to help low-income residents afford internet services. The Republican-led Legislature approved $54 million in the 2019-21 budget — the largest investment ever in broadband. 

“Legislators in both parties have heralded how important broadband is, and of course, we all saw during the pandemic there was little more important than broadband,” Barca said. “We feel very positive that that can pass.”

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Tomorrow Grant Program will allocate $420 million from the state’s share of the American Rescue Plan Act dollars to small business recovery. It’s a collaboration between the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and DOR. It will give as many as 84,000 small businesses with revenue between $10,000 to $7 million a flat award of $5,000. 

The application will be coming out “very soon,” Barca said. “People will begin to apply sometime really within two weeks.” 

— JFC put off plans to vote on whether to use state money to help expand broadband coverage until details of the guv’s plans for $100 million in federal money for the effort are known.

Gov. Tony Evers earlier this week announced he plans to use $100 million of the coming $2.7 billion in coming COVID-19 stimulus funds for an initial round of broadband expansion grants.

The window to apply for the grants will run from June 1 to July 27.

Co-chair Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, said it was prudent to wait for details of how Evers plans to award the grants before moving forward.

“We don’t know yet what that’s going to look like,” Marklein said.

— Tara Daun is the new Farmer-Led Watershed Council coordinator for the Wisconsin Farmers Union.

In this role, Daun will work directly with farmer-led councils in Dunn, Pierce, Polk and St. Croix counties to increase farmer engagement, build council capacity, expand participation in incentive programs, and coordinate water testing and programming.

Through the councils’ work, educational networking events will be held on farms to showcase conservation practices such as no-till, strip tillage, cover crops and grassed waterways.

Daun will be working with local farmers running test plots and monitoring water quality in their watersheds. She also will network with multiple agencies that are concerned about water quality, including lake associations, elected officials, local tribes and environmental groups.

— Only Polk County remains in the “very high” category for COVID-19 activity this week; more counties have fallen into the “medium” tier.”

The county, located on the Minnesota border, has had a case rate greater than 350 cases per 100,000 people, but less than 1,000, according to data from the Department of Health Services. Minnesota is No. 6 in the nation for the most cases per 100,000 people in the last seven days, according to the CDC.

Most of Wisconsin’s 72 counties — 61 counties — have a “high” case burden. It means the counties have greater than 100 cases per 100,000 residents. 

Ten counties on the eastern half of the state report a “medium” level of COVID-19 activity, up from eight last week. These counties have had less than 100 cases per 100,000 residents in the past two weeks. 

Only Richland County is seeing a growing trajectory of cases. The southwestern county currently has a high case burden. 

— Wisconsin reports no significant change in COVID-19 patient censuses in the two weeks leading up to Tuesday. 

The Wisconsin Hospital Association reports 285 hospitalizations and 79 intensive care unit patients. Both figures are down from the day and week before.

Data from DHS show only the north central region of the state saw an increase in hospitalizations. Patient census rose 34 percent in the last two weeks. Meanwhile, south central Wisconsin is the only region that saw a shrinking census. 

Wisconsin is operating at 82 percent bed capacity, 83.7 percent ICU capacity and is using 16 percent of its ventilators. More than 4 percent of the state’s hospitals are at peak capacity. Nearly 18 percent of ICUs are at peak capacity.

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# Wisconsin unemployment rate 3-times better than 2020

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